It is not often that you walk into a gallery space and feel something is missing, unless that is the intention. Clearly what had been missing was this unification, however recent, of German artist, Gerhard Richter and Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. This year’s Manchester International Festival has done this to great effect, at the newly renovated Whitworth Art Gallery. The commissions in question here are Richter’s Double Grey (2014) and Birkenau (2015), and Pärt’s Drei Hirtenkinder as Fátima (2014). All are dedicated to the other party in a new creative bond between art and music.

Gerhard Richter and Arvo Pärt © Jan Chlebik
Gerhard Richter and Arvo Pärt
© Jan Chlebik

The Whitworth’s landscape room seems to be a space reserved for works of a particular atmospheric quality. It has previously been filled with work of essential Japanese character, containing an emphasis on the piece as a whole. This is something equally inherent to the Richter/Pärt combination.

To begin to gauge Pärt’s new choral work and the performance, you must start with what you are given – four large-scale landscape works divided into two that is Double Grey, and four equally large works (divided into four), but portrait, that is Birkenau. In the catalogue, Double Grey is displayed deliberately reflecting the viewer in its enamelled glass. At first, from the entrance to the room, you see a two-toned grey expanse. Unyielding? Cold? Perhaps… Directly in front of the work, the neutral colours (the darker grey being slightly warmer) whisper. Not only do you see yourself reflected, and enter a psychological and philosophical dialogue with yourself and the space in this way, you might also find something haunting about the giant minimalism. It is smoky and dormant despite its simple, flat-planed delivery. For all intensive purposes it could be seen as a blank canvas.

Birkenau departs from, or in fact never gets to this, “pure art”, likely inspired by music. Though it is still dedicated to Pärt, it seems more to be a radiating force in the room than a conducting or recessive one like Double Grey. It does not wait to be activated, it gives all. The context of these [originally] paintings highlights a recurring Richter theme, following the process of catharsis associated with the tragedies of the Second World War and the Cold War (East/West German divide). German neo-expressionist work has been at the beating heart of decades of tension and emotional outpour. Richter is particularly noted for his philosophical approach, his philosophies on art, politics, and society. Birkenau abstracts the photography of an Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner (in 1944). Richter strips and melts it to its bare bones of anguish. One could also consider he has taken the images so far from their original forms that there can also be a sense of departure from grief though the work is still strikingly evocative in muddy colours ranging from black to white and red to green.

In his documentary film, you can see Richter would have used a giant squeegee to pull the paint along the vast medium, creating tracks that further accentuate the melting, abstract process of delivery of the art. There is also a dry coarseness to the dragging of the paint that physicalises the work for the viewer, visually. Though these are matt photo-versions of the original paintings on display, they were uniquely created for this venture and harmonise well with the enamelled glass.

Richter/Pärt at the Whitworth © Jan Chlebik
Richter/Pärt at the Whitworth
© Jan Chlebik

So, the art, the space, the Richters. They aren’t timid or shy as the artist can often be with onlookers when he’s working. They are welcoming, in a reverential way, and so Vox Clamantis slipped in to the room, dispersed and casual, probably unnoticed by most. Once in position and conductor (Artistic Director, Jaan-Eik Tulve) was raised, the lonely tenor began, in a Gregorian chant opening style. The space filled and came alive. The room has an excellent acoustic. The greys radiated with the music and the Birkenau pieces began to the arrest your gaze. The choral piece, Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima [Three Shepherd Children of Fatima] is roughly a minute and a half in length. A different choir each day will go on to repeat it periodically throughout the day. The subtle musical inflections employed by Pärt sparkled and wrenched in a subdued manner. The composed melodious female voices pulled the pitches higher in clustered arpeggio leaps, as if taking your gaze higher and higher up the paintings of Birkenau, and the soundscape created by the drone-like bass line and tenor, to the same rhythm, swelled to swirl around the space and inside Double Grey. All remained tempered and quiet though, thoughtful and questioning of the pieces.

It is not to say that the music and art were made to harmonise. It is also not to say which came before the other. Only that the two artists know each other and inhabit/inhabited a thought field of environmental discourse. The choral work fades as it began with the repeated chant of “Alleluia”.

I highly recommend this free experience, and that you take the opportunity to walk around the space during the singing to take in from a variety of angles, the voices and the visuals, which change beautifully as you do.

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